Optimality and Teleology in Aristotle's Natural Science

Abstract

In this paper I examine the role of optimality reasoning in Aristotle’s natural science. By “optimality reasoning” I mean reasoning that appeals to some conception of “what is best” in order to explain why things are the way they are. We are first introduced to this pattern of reasoning in the famous passage at Phaedo 97b8-98a2, where (Plato’s) Socrates invokes “what is best” as a cause (aitia) of things in nature. This passage can be seen as the intellectual ancestor of Aristotle’s own principle, expressed by the famous dictum “nature does nothing in vain but always what is best for the substance from among the possibilities concerning each kind of animal” (Progression of Animals II, 704b12-18). The paper is focused around exploring three questions that arise in connection with Aristotle’s use of this optimality principle: (1) How do we understand the concept of “the best” at work in the principle? (2) How does Aristotle conceive of “the range of possibilities”? And, finally, (3) what role does optimality reasoning play in Aristotle’s natural science? Is it a special form of demonstration in which the optimality principle functions as one of its premises, or is it a heuristic device that helps uncover those causally relevant features of a natural substances that ultimately serve as middle terms in demonstrations? In the final section I return to the comparison between Plato and Aristotle and argue that, while both see the natural world as the product of an optimizing agent and while both see this assumption as licensing a pattern of reasoning that appeals to a certain conception of “the best”, they disagree fundamentally over what the optimization agent is and how it operates. Thus, despite their general agreement, it would be a mistake to think that Aristotle simply took over Plato’s use of optimality reasoning without significant modifications.

Links

PhilArchive

External links

  • This entry has no external links. Add one.
Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server

Through your library

  • Only published works are available at libraries.

Similar books and articles

The Teleological Significance of Dreaming in Aristotle.Mor Segev - 2012 - Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 43:107-141.
Optimality modeling in a suboptimal world.Angela Potochnik - 2009 - Biology and Philosophy 24 (2):183-197.
Optimality modeling and explanatory generality.Angela Potochnik - 2007 - Philosophy of Science 74 (5):680-691.
Marjorie Grene, Aristotle's Philosophy of Science and Aristotle's Biology.James G. Lennox - 1984 - PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1984:365 - 377.
Aristotle on Teleology.Monte Ransome Johnson - 2008 - Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Aristotle on Beauty and Goodness in Nature.Christopher V. Mirus - 2012 - International Philosophical Quarterly 52 (1):79-97.
Desire and natural classification: Aristotle and Peirce on final cause.Stephen B. Hawkins - 2007 - Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 43 (3):521 - 541.

Analytics

Added to PP
2012-02-12

Downloads
667 (#13,543)

6 months
37 (#35,592)

Historical graph of downloads
How can I increase my downloads?

Author's Profile

Devin Henry
University of Western Ontario

Citations of this work

Aristotle and the Origins of Evil.Jozef Müller - 2020 - Phronesis: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy 65 (2):179-223.
Method and Metaphor in Aristotle's Science of Nature.Sean Coughlin - 2013 - Dissertation, University of Western Ontario

Add more citations

References found in this work

Aristotle.Jonathan Barnes - 1975 - In R. M. Hare, Jonathan Barnes & Henry Chadwick (eds.), Founders of Thought. Oxford University Press.
Aristotelian teleology.Lindsay Judson - 2005 - Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 29:341-66.
The problem of teleology.Wolfgang Wieland - 1975 - In Jonathan Barnes, Malcolm Schofield & Richard Sorabji (eds.), Articles on Aristotle. Duckworth. pp. 1--141.

View all 8 references / Add more references